Two-wheeling for Fun and Idealism

Students, faculty embrace cycling for its good exercise, zero emissions

by Elise Gibson

Students ride their bikes on campus.

Photo credit: Jessica Scranton

Bicycles of every style and vintage regularly cram the bike rack outside of Ford Hall, and from one end of campus to the other, bikes are locked to fences, trees, and stair rails outside of academic buildings and houses. The student-run Bicycle Kitchen rented all fifty of its bikes in the first two weeks of school and had a waiting list of twenty. A new cycling club started up last spring.

Bicycling may not have been this popular on campus since the fitness-induced surge of cycling in the 1970s. “I’ve seen a significant rise in biking at Smith,” said James Lowenthal, an astronomy professor and avid cyclist. “Nationally, biking is way up.”

It’s not hard to imagine why bikes and students are made for each other. Bicycles are a perfect mode of transportation for those who are concerned about the environment, their health, or their pocketbook; in short, your average college student. “My interest in biking has grown tremendously in the last several years,” said Colby Singleton ’11J, a co-manager of Bicycle Kitchen. “I feel great after riding, and not just physically. I’m depending on myself to get around, and that feels empowering.”

Competitive racer and Cycling Club President Emily Curry ’12 concurs. “The tranquility and empowering nature of a bike ride is something that I would like to share with anyone who can ride on two wheels,” she said. Further, she hopes to spark campus interest in competitive cycling. “I feel very strongly that women should have a strong presence in cycling events and would love to have Smith’s name on the back of a jersey.”

Across the country, bicycling is enjoying the attention of a devoted cadre of advocates, who are pushing institutions to make cycling an easier, more attractive option for students, commuters, and recreational riders. At Smith, faculty members are smoothing the path in a number of ways.

A few years ago, Nicholas Horton, associate professor of math and statistics, created a group, Friends of Northampton Trails and Greenways, that is devoted to improving and promoting the local rail trails and bike paths. One of its projects is a detailed map of bike paths in the area and how they link to one another. The map incorporates GIS specialist Jon Caris’ expertise in satellite mapping technology, data collection by Hannah Kegley ’12, and the cartographic skills of Ella Hartenian ’11, a bike enthusiast and STRIDE scholar. The group has so far distributed 9,000 maps, mostly via the local chamber of commerce. “A map to the rail trails can play a role in ecotourism by attracting people to use the bikeways,” Horton said.

For these activists, bicycling is more than a healthful pastime. It’s also about reducing fossil fuels and pollution, and making cities and towns more livable.

For instance, Horton, who last spring was named Bike Advocate of the Year by MassBike advocacy group, is working with Hartenian on a statistics-based paper on the effect of bike-path proximity on housing values. Her findings were dramatic. “On average, homes within an eight-minute walk of the trail appreciated by $28,226 more than homes that were farther away,” said Hartenian, whose research included poring over nine years’ worth of property values in Northampton.

“My interest in rail trails comes from my understanding that cities are going to continue to be huge population hubs as we continue into this century,” Hartenian said. “Making them the most livable and healthy places possible is only going to become a greater challenge. I enjoy using the paths as means of transportation and ways of enjoying natural areas.”

James Lowenthal, president of the Pioneer Valley chapter of MassBike, wishes for more and better bicycle parking on campus. “Good bicycle parking should be abundant, convenient, attractive, and close to buildings,” he said. Still, he applauds the college for its recent efforts to reconfigure the bike path next to the college on Elm Street. “It will save lives,” he said. “These are the kinds of visual cues that show that biking is encouraged.”

SAQ Winter 2010-11